Wednesday, March 28, 2012

For the Love of Dairy, Part 2: Yogurt in the Slow Cooker

In the past month, four of my coworkers have joined the homemade yogurt revolution.  Three have become converts.  One continues to waver on the fence after several botched attempts.  She plaintively asked what could be going wrong, as she sheepishly produced a Yoplait from her lunch bag.  Upon further investigation, it turns out that she had strayed from the original formula and was heating the milk in a saucepan or in a rice cooker.  Why?  No jars, she said.  Not even a single empty PB or spaghetti sauce jar languishing in the recycle bin?  No.  Well, never fear, here is a jar-free and foolproof way to make delicious yogurt at home with your trusty slow cooker.


a slow cooker

1/2 gallon of milk (2% or whole)

1/2 cup of yogurt starter (any plain yogurt with live, active cultures)

a beach towel or blanket



Pour 1/2 gallon of milk  in the slow cooker and place the lid on top

Turn on low for 2.5 hours

Turn off, leaving lid on for 3 hours.  At this point, the milk should be roughly 90-110 deg F.

Gently stir in about a half cup of starter and replace lid

Wrap in a large beach towel or blanket for 6-12 hours, leaving undisturbed

Transfer to containers and chill in the fridge.


That's it!  Be sure to set aside half a cup to use as the starter for your next batch before digging in.  The yogurt might seem a little soft at first, but after cooling in the fridge, should firm up a bit.  If it's still too runny, you have the option of pouring it into a coffee-filter lined colander to drain some whey off.  This yields thicker, almost Greek-style yogurt, but is messy and cumbersome.  Or next time, I've heard you can add some dry milk powder in at the step when you mix in the starter, though I've never tried this.

This method is super easy and requires very little active time, but I prefer the jars method because it doesn't require scooping out and transferring the yogurt, which I think makes it runnier.  The jars also allows for making different types of yogurt at the same time, like 2% for the grownups and whole milk for the baby.  And you don't have to spend time transferring yogurt and then washing a big heavy slow cooker pot.  Instead, if your baby is anything like our baby Anna was (see above), you can spend that extra time washing off the white hand of Saruman from your baby's hair after she digs into that delicious yogurt you just made.

Monday, March 19, 2012

For the Love of Dairy, Part I: Homemade Yogurt

In my opinion, the ideal do-it-yourself cooking endeavor should encompass at least three out of four traits: taste better, be more nutritious, save money, or be relatively easy.

Example #1: Rotisserie chicken. (insert loud buzzer sound)  Zero out of four.  Even with hours in the kitchen, I could never make one as delicious as the $4.99 Costco kind.

Example #2:  Ravioli. (repeat angry buzzing sound).  Maybe one out of four at most.  Do people really make this from scratch?  Non-Italians, I mean?  If so, props to you.  And feel free to drop by any time to "show" us how.

Example #3: Yogurt. (insert happy dinging sound)  Four for four!  Homemade yogurt is so delicious, healthy, and simple.  Really.  You might be thinking to yourself, "Make your own yogurt?  Next she's going to tell me to milk my own cow."  But before you dismiss me as a granola-loving, butter-churning, commune-living pseudo hippie, hear me out.

I first started making yogurt a couple years ago to save some money, as our little household was going through a good half-gallon or more a week, but soon I found that I really did prefer the taste of homemade to store-bought.  I was shocked at the amount of sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup, companies managed to pack into those little cups.  After reading about yogurt making here, I went to town.  It might sound complicated, but trust me, if you can boil water, you can make yogurt.



3 or 4 glass jars with lids—canning jars are great but any sturdy glass jar will work
a large pot
a dishtowel
a picnic cooler
milk—I’ve had success with 2% and whole, never tried skim or 1% but they might work
1 cup of yogurt starter—basically a plain yogurt with live active cultures.  My favorite is Trader Joe’s European style yogurt.  I've also had good results with Brown Cow, Tillamook, and Mountain High.


The basic gist:

Heat the milk to 185 degrees to sterilize
Cool to 90-110 degrees
Add yogurt starter (i.e. yogurt with live cultures)
Incubate at 90-110 degrees for 4-24 hours


The detailed instructions:

Fill the jars with milk, and place them in the pot over a dishtowel, tucking the towel in between the jars a little so they don’t knock together and break.  Fill the pot with water.

Bring the water to a boil and allow the milk to reach 185 degrees.  If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell it’s ready when the milk forms a skin on top.

Remove the jars from the heat and set on the counter, skim the skin off the milk, and place the lids on.  Place the lid on the pot to keep the water warm.  Take the yogurt starter out of the fridge now to let it warm up a little.

Allow the milk to cool on the counter to somewhere between 90-110 degrees (in our house this usually takes about 60-90 minutes).  Some sites recommend putting the jars in an ice water bath to cool faster, but I have broken more than one jar this way, and a quart of milk exploding in the kitchen really takes the fun out of this whole endeavor.  If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell the milk is ready when you’re able to hold the jar in your hand without burning yourself, but it still feels pretty warm.

Add the yogurt starter, roughly 2 tablespoons per quart of milk, taking care not to stir too vigorously.  Just a couple figure 8s with the spoon will do.

Place the jars and the pot of water (or at least a big jarful) in a picnic cooler surrounded by a towel for 4-24 hours.  The goal is to keep it at 90-110 degrees for incubation, though I've never measured.  Resist the urge to peek too often; the yogurt sets better if undisturbed, and you don't want your heat to escape.  I usually put the yogurt in at bedtime and pull it out in the morning.   With a toddler and an infant, I’ll let you guess how long that span of time is.  Good thing yogurt is hard to mess up.

That's it!  Now you have pure, unadulterated yogurt to devour.

Note: If you are lactose-intolerant like me, you might be happy to learn that many yogurts have low lactose content and are more easily digested than, say, a cup of cow's milk.  I am still on the quest for a truly lactose-FREE homemade yogurt product, though.  Trial #1 with soy milk was a total fail.  One bite and I nearly threw up in the sink.  Trial #2 with lactose-free milk yielded a yogurt with a delicious flavor but a texture that was alarmingly like mucus.  The quest continues . . .

Saturday, March 10, 2012

For the Love of Dairy

Ours was a classic case of opposites attract, a story as old as the Montagues and Capulets, the Sharks and the Jets.  Only the trait that threatened to divide us was not social class, race, nor loyalty, but . . . dairy.  Though, a seemingly minor difference, the affinity to or abhorrence of milk products runs deep in our lineage.

Jeff's dad grew up on a farm in Minnesota, yet even after leaving to earn degrees in education, he continued  to keep company with a bovine crew.  Even to this day, though his day job is far from the farm, he continues to milk cows on weekends.  Mostly for fun.  If one were to peruse my in-laws' magazine racks, one would find not only the requisite Good Housekeeping and Readers Digests, but issues of Hoard's Dairyman, complete with Playboy-esque centerfolds of cows, strutting in their bovine beauty.  Then there is the stuffed cow collection.  But don't be fooled into thinking they only love cows as people, er, as cows.  They love it all: steak, burgers, roasts, milk, cheese, sour cream, butter.  Jeff's entire extended family on his mother's side partakes in the ritual of Saturday night hamburgers.  That's right; they eat hamburgers EVERY week.  Oh yes, that family loves cows.

My family, on the other hand, shares a dairy aversion common to much of the entire continent of Asia.

So when this lactose-intolerant girl met a lover-of-all-things-that-come-from-a-cow guy, someone had to give.  Jeff discovered liquid lactase enzyme, similar to Lactaid pills but in a liquid form that can be added directly to milk to digest the lactose prior to consumption.  For some reason this was unavailable in the U.S. and must be mail-ordered from Canada.  A few drops of liquid lactase into a gallon of milk and presto chango!  Lactose-free milk for a fraction of the price of store-bought.  It was all smooth sailing for a while there, until we received a batch that was undeniably a dud.  The bottled enzyme was no longer functional.  Don’t ask me how I know; just trust me on that one.  After that, I was a little gunshy to try Canadian mail-order pharmaceuticals again.

Eventually, we came to peace with the fact that though cows'  milk and I may never get along, there are plenty of other dairy products to enjoy (with the help of a Costco-sized box of lactase pills).  Over the years, what began for me as an aversion to dairy became a tolerance, then a full-fledged love affair, and now somewhat of a hobby as well.  Nowadays I cannot imagine a fridge without, say, yogurt and gorgonzola cheese.   (As an aside, how many different dairy products can you spot in our fridge above?)  In the next few months we will be featuring a do-it-yourself dairy series sharing some of our favorite homemade recipes for yogurt, Neufchatel, mozzarella, goat cheese, and (best of all) ice cream.  So buddy up with your local cow and stay tuned . . .